tampabay.com

Weeki Wachee mermaids in terrorists' cross hairs?

Weeki Wachee Springs will seek federal funds after being named a top terrorism target, a theme park official said.

By MARY SPICUZZA
Published April 22, 2005


WEEKI WACHEE - Who on earth would ever want to harm the Weeki Wachee mermaids?

It staggers the imagination.

Still, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has named Weeki Wachee Springs as the potential terror target of Hernando County, according to a theme park official.

The Weeki Wachee staff is teaming up with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to "harden the target" by keeping the mermaid theater and the rest of the park safe from a potential terror attack, said marketing and promotion manager John Athanason.

"I can't imagine (Osama) bin Laden trying to blow up the mermaids," Athanason said. "But with terrorists, who knows what they're thinking. I don't want to think like a terrorist, but what if the terrorists try to poison the water at Weeki Wachee Springs?"

Mark Dubina, a special agent supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tampa, said there are a number of potential terror sites in the Tampa Bay region, but he declined to name them, citing security concerns.

Athanason said Weeki Wachee Springs is working to get some of the federal counterterrorism funding that has been allocated to the Tampa Bay region by the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Domestic Preparedness.

Terror-prevention plans for Weeki Wachee may include adding surveillance cameras, installing lights in the parking lot and securing areas in the roadside attraction where there may be "security breaches," he said.

But Athanason is also realistic. He said Walt Disney World is a bigger attraction and is likely to receive more counterterrorism funds.

Getting federal money to protect both the mermaids and Mickey Mouse may prove to be a challenge. Counterterrorism funding is generally given to public entities like sheriff's offices and police departments, said John Kohnke, a government analyst in the Domestic Security Office of the FDLE.

Kohnke said some private entities do receive funding, but they are typically "key critical infrastructures," such as sensitive power plants, hospitals, or ports.

But there is also funding available for a "buffer zone protection plan," Kohnke said. That money is designed to help "harden the target" at potentially sensitive sites.

Kohnke said the state has received about $700-million in counter-terrorism funding since about 1999. Local and regional planning efforts are being made to keep Hernando and other counties in the Tampa region safe from terror, he said.

Deputy Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, would only say that her office is assisting Weeki Wachee in writing the grant proposal.

But Athanason said he learned that Weeki Wachee Springs was named as Hernando County's potential terror target late last year.

The roadside attraction was apparently one of about 80,000 sites named by the Homeland Security Department in its national database of potential terrorist targets. The list is being kept secret so terrorists can't learn about the nation's vulnerabilities.

"It's classified," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Kirk Whitworth. "We wouldn't want to identify for our enemies what assets we consider critical."

But Athanason said that "someone from Homeland Security" will be visiting the park next week to evaluate what can be done to help keep the roadside attraction safe.

In preparation, Athanason has been taking photographs of potential trouble spots around the attraction.

"We'll do the best we can," he said.

Athanason said it's hard to imagine terrorists targeting the mermaids but added that 9/11 taught the nation that it's impossible to be too cautious.

"We're not New York City, and we're not the World Trade Center," he said. "But in Hernando County, Weeki Wachee is where people congregate."

Hernando County Emergency Management Director Tom Leto applauded the Sheriff's Office and the theme park for taking action.

"I think it's a good thing. I'm in total support of it," Leto said. "The major venues that bring people together are on this list, where you can get large groups of people together, and that is Weeki Wachee."

Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzza@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.